Alexander Larman

Apocalypse now

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The Land of Decoration

Grace McCleen

Chatto, pp. 304, £

The blurb on the front of Grace McCleen’s debut novel (from Room author Emma Donoghue) proclaims it to be ‘extraordinary’, and goes on to praise it as ‘brutally real’, commending its mixture of ‘social observation and crazy mysticism, held together by a tale of parent-child love’. Unusually for a blurb, this is all accurate. McCleen’s novel may not be perfect, but it has a compelling and, at times hideously tense narrative that makes it an arresting read. It is deservedly named as one of Waterstones’ most promising debut novels of 2012.

Owing something to both Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit and Stephen King’s Carrie, the story concerns ten-year old Judith McPherson, living with her widowed father in a depressed small town in the 1980s. Judith and her father both belong to a fundamentalist religious sect that believes in the imminent arrival of the apocalypse, but for Judith the end might as well already have arrived.

Bullied by her classmates, in particular the son of her father’s nemesis Doug Lewis, she finds herself becoming increasingly solitary. Her only company is a vividly imagined fantasy world, the titular land of decoration, made up of assorted oddments that she finds around the house. This world becomes the basis for apparent real-world miracles that she sees occurring, but her apparent contentment is threatened both by the increasing intensity of the threats that she and her father receive from others in the community, and the voice of an implacable Old Testament God.

McCleen approaches a potentially absurd subject with great moral clarity and purpose. Her upbringing in a similarly religious household to the one she depicts has enabled her to paint the milieu accurately, avoiding the usual clichés and endowing the relationship between Judith and her remote father with poignancy and delicacy. While her evocation of blind faith’s drawbacks is unlikely to convert anyone, it’s a far cry from the usual broad brushstrokes.

Likewise, although the school-orientated narrative is weakened by the stock character of an understanding, supportive teacher who is Judith’s sole ally, its sense of the escalating rivalry between Judith and the bullies makes this a thrilling page-turner. If the denouement cannot quite match the  build-up, this is a small price to pay for the strange rich world that McCleen creates.